' ' Cinema Romantico: My First College Football Game

Saturday, July 09, 2022

My First College Football Game

September 16, 1989: Iowa vs Oregon

I had just started sixth grade when my friend whose parents had season tickets to University of Iowa football games offered me their fourth for the Hawkeyes’ 1989 kickoff against the Oregon Ducks. Getting into the spirit, my dad used our hot, new Macintosh Classic to create a dot matrix banner with a rudimentary graphic that I’m pretty sure was a roasted turkey but still looked enough like a roasted duck to emphasize our chosen slogan of “Roast the Ducks!” My friend and I unfurled this banner exactly once, early in the 4th quarter when Iowa quarterback Matt Rodgers sauntered into the end zone from 5 yards out. That rendered the final score: Oregon – 44 Iowa – 6. I seem to remember a running play that Iowa dialed up several times to no great effect, always ending with the running back haplessly sprawled on the ground having gone nowhere. After one of these woebegone displays of offense, someone sitting behind us dryly lamented in the general direction of Iowa coach Hayden Fry something along the lines of, I think they’re on to that one, Hayden. Yet, the result didn’t much matter, and not just because by 1989 I had already contrarily declared my allegiance to Nebraska Football.

I see images of 1980s college football games on YouTube now that I remember seeing live back then and if, say, the image of the 1988 Rose Bowl set down in the Arroyo Seco looks fuzzy and primitive by our contemporary standards, I swear that in the moment it was spine-tingling. Still, if you’ve ever wondered how a faded Polaroid from the 1950s might have looked through your own eyes, that’s what it was like to finally be in Kinnick Stadium for real. Japan technically began High-Definition broadcasts that same year, in June of ’89, but the first time I saw my favorite sport in HD was that September Saturday. It’s virtually impossible to remember everything in full, just flashes, a once-finished puzzle in my head now disassembled, but I can still sort of call to mind how the natural grass (new in Kinnick that year after transitioning away from the evaporating AstroTurf fad) and the black and gold uniforms of Iowa and the pre-Jean Paul Gaultier era green and yellow classic uniforms of the hitherto untrendy Oregon were so bright and vivid in the mid-day, pre-autumn equinox light. And if Keith Jackson was the sound of college football, here I just had the soundtrack au naturel, of the marching bands and omnipresent murmur of the crowd, like seeing a documentary without any narration. No one was there to give me context; the context manifested on its own. Everything felt bigger but simultaneously more intimate.

But crucially, the experience was not just the game itself. This might sound strange, but in those Athlon College Football annuals of the 80s that I would read and re-read every August, there was an ad for Kessler Whiskey with a few tailgating fans gathered around a grill jubilantly raising glasses of their preferred brown liquor. I had just turned 12 and had not so much as thought about drinking; that the ad was for alcohol didn’t even really register with me. No, it was more about this image fusing college football and celebration in my mind. (I am now 44 and have never bought Kessler Whiskey. The ad worked on me without working on me at all.) And as we walked to the stadium from downtown Iowa City, across Burlington and over the Iowa River, down Grand and then on to Melrose, I remember that Kessler ad coming to life. There were cars, grills, coolers, and revelers, most donned in black and gold, stretched as far as the eye could see. I’m sure there was drunken revelry too, though like the young Marquis de Lafayette first arriving in America and naively believing everyone to be a liberty-lover like him, no debauchery registered. After the game we trekked back downtown to the Ped Mall and ran into a few of our middle school teachers eating ice cream. I had never seen them outside the classroom. It was a small world moment merged with a big one, the sense that the world as I knew it had just entirely uprooted itself that Saturday and moved 100 miles east.

If having seen college football exclusively through TV meant that I only possessed a national frame of reference, this experience gave me perspective. Neither Iowa nor Oregon would finish the season ranked just as Iowa State and Tulane would both finish the season unranked when I went to see them play three years later at the University of Iowa’s land-grant rival in Ames. These games left no national imprint and didn’t need to because they were gloriously, perfectly self-contained. As it happened, a game of extreme significance, the earliest encounter ever between the two top-ranked teams, #1 Michigan and #2 Notre Dame, took place the same Saturday as Iowa and Oregon. I had been looking forward to that game for months and it’s why when my friend initially invited me to Iowa City, I briefly hesitated. At some point when we were wandering in the Ped Mall, I insisted to my friend that we find a place to check in on #1 vs #2, finding what my memory tells me was a hotel lobby. 

Back then, standing there watching long enough to see Michigan fail to complete a 2-point conversion pass to future Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, I didn’t realize I was missing the forest for the trees.

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